The Temptations, and Responsibilities, of Power.
The Only Superpower: Reflections on Strength, Weakness, and Anti-Americanism by Paul Hollander (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2009)
No one who witnessed the decades-long confrontation between Soviet tyranny and the flawed but on the whole benign liberal democracies of the West during the Cold War can fail to be unfamiliar with and profoundly grateful to the self-described "free-floating intellectual" Paul Hollander. Having escaped his native Hungary after the 1956 Soviet invasion to undertake his undergraduate education at the London School of Economics and then to receive his graduate training and pursue his academic career in the United States, he has seen with a special sharpness-a sharpness that might not be given to one who had spent the entirety of his life on one side or the other of that great divide-the principles that were at stake in the struggle that occupied the majority of his adult life. For decades, in a discipline largely unsympathetic to such concerns, he has illuminated the understanding of others in such works as Soviet and American Society, Political Will and Personal Belief, and Discontents: Postmodern and Postcommunist.
Now come two additions to the Hollander corpus, which on the surface appear very different. Appearing in successive years, they were brought out by different publishers. Political Violence: Belief, Behavior, and Legitimation is a festschrift dedicated to Robert Conquest and edited by Hollander, while The Only Superpower: Reflections on Strength, Weakness, and Anti-Americanism is a collection of Hollander's own essays. Although its contributors consider a variety of regimes, the former book finds a single decided theme in the beliefs that have been employed to justify and rationalize political violence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, while the latter volume is testimony to the variety of its author's interests. The first one is written in somber tones, as a reader might expect; the other runs the gamut from outrage to bemusement to sheer pleasure. Yet an underlying unity of purpose forms a bond between the two works, and between both of them and Hollander's lifelong concern for the preservation of the values for which he gave up life on one side of the Iron Curtain, and to the preservation of which he dedicated himself on the other.
An approach to the nature of those unifying elements can be found in an early paragraph in Hollander's introductory essay to Political Violence, in which he testifies to his own belief in "the compatibility of factual truth seeking with moral witness to historical events." Let us begin with that seeking after factual truth. Clearly, indeed insistently, Hollander will have no truck with those who suggest, in an airily postmodern way, that one can simply select one's preferred narrative, which will be supported only by an inter subjective acceptance. Hollander's world is one of inescapable facts-not only material facts, for the investigation of widely shared beliefs is one of his primary tasks, but also realities that cannot be wished away or ignored without cost-and one of the primary realities of the twentieth century, and by all indications of the twenty-first, is the massive presence of political power realized in the state. Never before in human history have such potent instruments for the exercise of power, in relation to other states and to a government's own people, been placed in the hands of those holding political authority. The ingenuity of these leaders in perfecting ever-more sophisticated methods of using such power to crush any opposition to their rule gives witness to the immanence of power.
Yet Hollander does not condemn every exercise of state power. For him, the crimes of the great totalitarian regimes of the last century and their culpable even if tawdry lesser heirs in the current one are reprehensible, and he is forthright in his indictment of them. On the other hand, he admires other powerful states, most notably the United States but also its major Western allies, for the resources that gave them the military wherewithal to resist the fury of the fascist and communist dictatorships and the economic bounty to take in their victims who managed to flee. Clearly, it is not enormous power per se to which Hollander objects and against which he warns his readers.
Rather, it is uncontrolled power-at the extreme, power that is free to hunt down and exterminate anyone who dares to question it-that is the danger. To attempt to rid the world of the phenomenon of power, even enormous centers of power, would be to ignore those realities that Hollander insists we must respect as part of the world that we seek to understand and to improve. Rather, the question that should occupy the attention of any fair-minded analyst of politics or society is the degree to which power in any specific set of circumstances is restrained and constrained, so that it may accomplish the legitimate purposes for which great capabilities are required, while it is prevented from carrying out the abuses that Hollander decries so eloquently. This differentiation is, of course, one of the true conundrums of political philosophy, and it has been a preoccupation, in one form or another, of almost every student of politics since the Greeks.
One method by which power may be controlled-"tamed," if you will-is its subjection to effective institutions that direct it solely to legitimate ends. Much of the horror conveyed in Political Violence lies in the instances its essays present of the immiserization that results when such institutions are either nonexistent or incapable of performing this vital role. Stalin was free to order the deaths (either directly or through policies that could with certainty be predicted to lead to the same result indirectly) of Ukrainians, kulaks, Volga Germans, Chechens, and Poles simply because of their membership in those groups. When those who had been unjustly sent to the gulag were released under Khrushchev and returned to society, they still had no effective access to institutions that could aid them in reclaiming the jobs, homes, and possessions that had been taken from them-the seizure of which may have been the real reason for their arrest in the first place. No workable procedures existed for peaceful leadership succession when Stalin died, an omission that had grisly consequences for those who were defeated in the ensuing struggle for control; men like Beria may have deserved their fate, given what they had meted out to others in their own days of tyrannical power, but one cannot suppress at least a twinge of sympathy for even those criminals, for they were human beings caught in the grip of unforgiving, unrelenting, untamed power. More recent examples of the weakness of institutions can be found in the descriptions of life and death in Castro's Cuba, in many of the states of post-colonial Africa, and-in Hollander's own harrowing account in his introduction to the volume-in the slaughters in Rwanda in 1994. Without courts worthy of the name, without effectively organized and properly trained police forces amenable to self-restraint, without legislative bodies that could serve as watchdogs and forums for grievances, the victims in all these cases succumbed to sheer, raw power.
One may of course respond that in at least some of these examples institutions did exist, on paper. Few documents could be more democratically colored and more spaciously conceived than the Soviet constitution of 1936, under the authority of which some of Stalin's worst crimes were committed. Its only real function seems to have been to serve as a cover, effective at convincing various naive or self-interested outside observers that every canon of justice was being observed. Here we find an important reason for Hollander's refusal to condemn power as such, because what makes institutions of all kinds reliable protectors of liberty against power is their own possession of usable power against aspiring tyrants. For all its fine phrasing, the 1936 constitution had no power to prevent a paranoid personality like Stalin from carrying any desired abuse into effect-nor, to be evenhanded about it, did any of its predecessor or successor constitutions under the Soviet regime. To the extent that that regime after Stalin's time decayed from totalitarianism into authoritarianism, it did so because several centers of power developed in the government and the party that prevented one man from exercising the complete control that Stalin had held. At a much higher level of justice, this is the genius of the American constitutional system, which has at its core a distrust of unconfined power. As Madison recognized, the variety of interests in a large country marked by diversity in its geography and its economy would preserve liberty by preventing any one faction from ruling on its own, the division of powers between the federal government and the states would keep both within just limits, and the separation of powers within the new federal government would set ambition against ambition in a way that would make it energetic without becoming dictatorial. In the international sphere, the use of power against power could halt the indefinite expansion of despotic states and preserve a zone of freedom, as it did in the Cold War through formal institutions such as NATO and informal institutionalized practices such as nuclear deterrence.
Madison's institutions rested on a chastened conception of human nature, in which material self-interest was a driving passion; government was a business neither of angels ruling other angels nor of angels ruling over men, but of flawed men ruling one another. One is back in the realm of Hollander's incorrigible realities, and ambition is a safer, more realistic starting point for framing a government than is the hope for pure disinterestedness. Such was the basis for the institutions that the Federalists created. There has always been another strain in the political philosophy of the people among whom Hollander came to live, however, and the preoccupations of the Anti-Federalists illustrate the third route-beyond simple institutions, and beyond institutions invested with the requisite power-to holding dangerously aspiring power in check, and that is the civic virtue of the citizenry. In the view of the Anti-Federalists, the intricate balance of the Federalists' institutions would come to naught if it were not undergirded by morality, religion, and public spirit. Only a virtuous public could indefinitely preserve its own freedom.
It is on this very point that the reader encounters one of the most sobering lessons of Political Violence: the seeming facility with which governments in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with all the instruments of the modern state at their command-including the control of increasingly intrusive media of communication-could manipulate their populations, mislead foreign observers, and legitimize the most horrific acts. Hollander admits to "a certain fascination with the human capacity for self-deception ... [the] predispositions to misjudgment [that have] made it easier for [tyrannical] systems to misrepresent themselves over long periods of time." More than that, those in positions of power have been able to instill or uncover in the populace unreasoning and unjust fury against some of their fellow citizens, "making it easy to treat groups and individuals either with hostile detachment or outright hatred." The result has been oppression and in some cases genocide. Even in the absence of dictators whipping up class hatred in the place of a sturdy patriotism, civic virtue can decay among the people themselves, and Hollander gives evidence of his concern that such a process is under way in his adopted country. There will be no pogroms or labor camps in the United States, but he sees the debasement and coarsening of popular culture, the widespread popularity of a vulgar poseur like Michael Moore, and the credulous faith displayed by an educated audience like the faculty of Duke in dubious tales of the rape of an "exotic dancer," and one senses that he fears that the beliefs and habits of mind that make a citizen determined to defend justice and liberty for himself and ready to accord them to others are not as strong among the American people as they once were.
Here, then, is the dilemma that Hollander appears to set for himself in these two rich volumes. In and of themselves, institutions cannot reliably face down potentially oppressive power, and even institutions holding countervailing power may not serve their purpose if they are undermined by a deterioration in the values of the people who must ultimately animate institutions and see that power is employed for its proper purposes. Yet efforts to rouse the popular will can carry their own dangers. Citizens need ideals beyond rationally calculated self-interest, but the lesson of the twentieth century, perhaps beyond any other century in history, is that "the political pursuit of Utopian social arrangements and human perfectibility is bound to produce a rich and devastating harvest of unintended consequences such as violence, repression, and mendaciousness, as well as untold material and psychic deprivations for the surviving victims of these experiments in social engineering."
The task of walking the fine line between these two dangers, at least in collective life, is one for morally informed political statesmanship, and Hollander does not shy away from tackling political questions. For him, what is political is not confined to periodic elections, but he does not go to the other extreme and advocate the politicization of all of life. What then is "the political"? One answer to that question finds the political in an age-old debate between the claims of the single universal truth and absolute standard of right and wrong, above all human institutions, on the one hand, and, on the other, respect for and pleasure in the diversity of life, of institutions and practices that have sprung up and become rooted in the affections of specific groups of people, because they respond to the conditions of those people. Ideology, the curse of the modern world, undermines both. It legitimizes acts contrary to natural law because they advance the doctrine one has adopted, so turning morality into what the expositors of the doctrine say is necessary to advance their revolution. (Hollander notes and criticizes this "revolutionary morality.") On the other hand, ideology stamps out individuality, as inconsistent with and dangerous to a vision that simultaneously holds all the answers and is constantly in danger from its omnipresent enemies.
A proper appreciation for the political is a step toward an understanding of that vitally necessary but highly dangerous phenomenon of power. Believers in the sameness of all people and an automatic harmony among them if governments will only get out of the way-the enthusiasts for Soviet-American people-to-people contacts, whom Hollander examines somewhat wryly in The Only Superpower-want an apolitical world. If they had been successful, they would have disabled their country in the face of those who did know how to use power, who even relished its use, in aggressive and destructive ways. (Hollander notes that the Soviet authorities never gave real scope to any of their citizens to carry out this bypassing of politics, so that the exchanges were one-sided; they allowed only for criticism of the regimes that were already comparatively free.) He calls attention as well to the actions and attitudes of those who were hyperpolitical, in the sense of caring only about power, without moral or even aesthetic restraint. They felt none of the responsibilities of power-no sense of duty at least to attempt in the first instance to persuade and convince, rather than simply coerce; no willingness to accept the legitimacy of differing points of view and to undergo the testing of each in free debate. They were wholly enthralled by its temptations-the demand for positive, overt displays of loyalty, even by those who would not oppose the regime but would ask only to be left alone, even by those who were about to be executed on trumped-up charges of disloyalty-in part simply because they had the power to exact this simulated enthusiasm. They had succumbed to the temptations of power, as well as being intoxicated by ideology.
Hollander wishes to argue that the apolitical stance, and the hyperpolitical, purely power-oriented one, both incapacitate us from making distinctions, the very task that Aristotle among others would tell us is at the heart of a true understanding of politics. The devotees of people-to-people exchange could not see a difference between a totalitarian political order and a free one, in their domestic character or in the foreign policy they might follow. The hyperpolitical ideologist cannot abide the distinctions of individual cases (the question of the guilt or innocence of a particular defendant charged with a specific crime under a known law, for example), because all such details must be subordinated to the success of the ideology.
Even in modern societies not in the grip of revolutionary ideology, distinctions of all kinds seem to sink beneath a general desire for complete equality, for sameness in all things. Hollander finds this tendency in many areas of life, both large and small, and in The Only Superpower this concern runs like a red skein through the fabric of his affection for America. He believes that the United States by and large has used its power in ways that are responsible and constructive when judged by the historical standards of great powers. Yet the adversary culture that he decries constantly condemns the United States as one of history's worst offenders, while letting its opponents, both past (the USSR) and present (Cuba and North Korea), off almost scot-free, or even praises them. Here is not so much an unwillingness to make distinctions as an inability to do so wisely, with the result that political judgment is turned upside down. The relatively good is rejected as unprecedentedly evil, while the malevolent is empathized with as only wayward or even unfairly misunderstood. Hollander has occasion more than once to note that nonjudgmental multicultural relativism seems to cohabit happily with an inordinate readiness to pass judgment on those who are said to be guilty of social injustice-prejudices based on race, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation-and an ability to find those transgressions in even the most apparently innocent of beliefs or actions. Are such judgments, and only such judgments, allowed in politically correct society because the sins they identify consist precisely in making distinctions, which is the greatest and only unforgivable wrong in an increasingly nihilistic world? Those who are to be condemned are those who fail to endorse the doctrine of sameness.
Hollander believes that he and all rational, moral beings are capable of making distinctions, and therefore ultimately of observing the line between selfless civic virtue and ideological madness. He criticizes some aspects of American culture, such as the apparent devotion of his fellow citizens to SUVs (at least as of a few years ago), without becoming anti-American. Even as a young man, he tells the reader, "I could tell the difference between the presence or absence of political freedom." He advocates the study of the Great Books, and he castigates those who would see no difference between them and the lowest products of popular culture-it is their unwillingness to distinguish between the higher and the lower that constitutes their failing. He decries Noam Chomsky for contributing to the "steady corruption of the capacity for moral discernment and judgment by resolutely lumping together phenomena that are in fact morally and factually quite dissimilar [into a] monochromatic, conspiratorial worldview." The essay "Admiring North Korea" disdainfully rejects the moral equivalence implied, or rather proclaimed, in the use of the term "gulag" to describe prisons in the United States. In one of his most reflective essays, "Travel in the Peloponnesos," he concludes with an appreciation of the contradictory expectations and results of travel, which might be summed up as a simple curiosity that is satisfied by a renewed appreciation for the complexity of the human experience. It is precisely this complexity that totalizing regimes are determined to stamp out and replace with uniformity, repetition, and enthusiastic obedience.
In his final and perhaps most introspective essay in The Only Superpower, Hollander returns to the theme of balance between contending and inescapable forces of our existence: "Taking ideas seriously and including them among the major influences on our life does not mean that we can endlessly and limitlessly reinvent ourselves or the societies we live in but it does provide a more open-ended perspective on human life and destiny." The idea that by an act of the will one can reinvent the human condition lies at the heart of ideologies that have caused untold human misery during Hollander's lifetime, because they have necessarily evoked the limitless coercion required to fit every person into the new mold. On the other hand, there are ideas that are just, right, and noble, although even they cannot remove all the imperfections from the world. The capacity of leaders to make distinctions among such ideas defines statesmanship, and such a capacity among the citizenry supports civic virtue. Without those resources, responsible political power cannot resist the temptations of power, which may threaten it with decay within or attack from without. With such resources, we may hope to avoid the hellish world that Hollander presents in Political Violence, and preserve and reform the variegated, imperfect, but nevertheless preferable world that he sees in The Only Superpower.
DAVID CLINTON is Professor of Political Science and Department Chair at Baylor University.
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|Title Annotation:||'The Only Superpower: Reflections on Strength, Weakness, and Anti-Americanism' and 'Political Violence: Belief, Behavior, and Legitimation'|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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